It’s spring break and I’ve been holed up in a New England farmhouse, enjoying some “spring” afternoons, as it rains outside, the kids nap, and I get to curl up and read.
My father-in-law is a history professor and somehow I feel like the house has “ambiance of history”. I feel like reading history books while I’m there.
Recently I have been enjoying biographies. History books often feel like a hundred different things are happening and my mind gets shuffled up, forgetting precisely which ruler of which French city was angry at the peasants because archery was so effective, and then it’s hard to be sure I have the correct meaning of a subsequent anecdote instead of the backward meaning. With a biography, often the most interesting things you learn are facts about the general time and place, and the individual’s life is just a nice structure to hang a row of facts on.
These three biographies were particularly good and I recommend them.
The book: Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius in the Enlightenment. Euler lived from 1707 to 1783, so technically this was before the “industrial revolution” although his life shows so many ways that science and engineering were making the world more effective that it makes you wonder whether the industrial revolution was a concise period or more a phenomenon that slowly arose over time.
When Euler was young, mathematicians were ashamed to call themselves “mathematicians”. The word had a connotation of magic, numerology, and astrology. Instead he preferred to be called a “geometer”.
To understand Euler you have to understand Newton. Newton figured out the basics of calculus and the basics of the modern laws of physics. But he still did a lot of his work using geometry. Euler basically destroyed geometry. He solved so many practical problems and proved so many mathematical theorems using calculus, there was hardly any role for geometry any more. Nowadays we learn geometry because of its historical role in mathematics, not because any practicing engineer is going to use even the most basic parts of geometry like inscribing a circle in a triangle.
Mathematics was so low-status at the time. Euler’s father wanted him to do something useful, like become a priest. He won respect not by pure mathematics, but by solving practical engineering problems like deciding what shape of a sail would be the most effective, or determining the longitude from observations of the moon.
Some people look nowadays and wonder, why is progress in pure mathematics slowing down? Obviously Euler had a huge advantage, studying mathematics when the competition was like, four or five main academies in Europe had a few mathematicians each. But mathematics wasn’t a primary area of scholarly endeavor at the time. That would be something like theology or the study of Greek literature.
Perhaps a field that gets little respect today will be looked back on as the primary scientific achievement of our time. My bet is on open source software. We are living in the era when Python, NumPy, and Jupyter notebooks are first being invented! One difference is that modern software is often developed by teams, as opposed to research papers in the 1700s.
The book: Bismarck: A Life.
Bismarck is more like Steve Jobs than anyone else I’ve read about. Intensely charismatic, except so many people disliked him. Somehow when people talked to him they were charmed and convinced by his unusual ideas. He ended up running a huge organization, micromanaging everything in a way that infuriated many people and exhausted himself, but at the same time achieving successes that were thought impossible.
Bismarck is so full of contradictions. What did he even want? He was a conservative, believing that a strong king should make all decisions. And yet he clearly didn’t want his king to actually make decisions. It’s a weird organizational setup in that the king could technically fire Bismarck at any time, and yet once Bismarck as chancellor had turned the King of Prussia into the Emperor of Germany, who was going to fire him?
A monarchist who was the first in Germany to introduce universal male suffrage, he clearly didn’t like Jewish people personally but at the same time he pushed through pretty strong religious freedom laws. He somewhat randomly put together the first social-security-type plan. But really his politics were all over the map. The only thing that it really seemed he consistently believed in was that his employer should gain more and more power.
In the end, it’s hard to read about Bismarck without thinking of what would happen a few decades later, in the system he built. The Kaiser who finally fired a 75-year-old Bismarck would later get sucked into World War I and lose the German Empire that Bismarck built for him.
It does make me respect George Washington and Steve Jobs more. If you make yourself the first great leader of an organization, it can be impossible for anyone else to keep it together. It’s easy to take it for granted when John Adams or Tim Cook keeps things going but that doesn’t always happen.
Speaking of American presidents…
The book: Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.
Abraham Lincoln is like Jesus. So many people have written books about him, there is far more commentary written after the fact than there is direct evidence of any truth at the time. And the vast majority of these writers think that the subject is a great, great human being, so every anecdote, every little bit is slanted and has dozens of accolades written about it. It’s just impossible to read something calm and neutral the way you can about, say, Euler, where nobody has any real strong opinions about Euler and nobody has had any for a hundred years.
So this book ends up asking questions like: was Abraham Lincoln entirely honest throughout his entire life? And weirdly concluding “yes” although in practice the book itself contains many examples of Lincoln doing things like taking on pro bono cases for clients he knew were guilty but were political allies of his, or making statements that are clearly false. I mean, I would categorize them as “normal politician” things. They aren’t terrible. But it seems like there is a faction which considers Lincoln to be more like an angel than like a good politician, enough of a faction that this book can both seem too rosy-tinted to me, and also declare itself to be clearly on the “more negative on Lincoln” part of the Lincoln-biography spectrum.
One of the striking things about Lincoln is how terrible so many other politicians were. People were just drunk all the time. The governor of Illinois, the vice president, and all sorts of lesser characters make terrible missteps due to being plastered at important events.
Politics in general seemed even dumber than today. Political cartoons were often important drivers of public opinion, and they were even more simplistic and “fake news” than modern campaign ads.
Lincoln does seem like a great president. He was more or less a normal politician who did normal politician things, became president due to a mix of luck and corruption, and found himself running the country in a civil war that had already started, which gave him more power than almost any other president. He then used this power to be about as anti-slavery as he could possibly be - both the Emancipation Proclamation and creating black army units were essentially “executive orders” that he could do without Congressional approval.
I suspect that Sherman is underrated. If Lincoln didn’t win the Civil War, he would have been a bad president rather than arguably the best one. And if Lincoln didn’t get reelected he also wouldn’t have been able to get his full agenda through. Both of these seem in large part due to Sherman’s campaign being so successful ahead of the 1864 election. But this is only a sideline of the book - if I end up reading more about the Civil War then I’m curious to learn more about this aspect of it.
Read one of these books! I feel like writing all this stuff about books is worth it if even one reader decides to read a book as a result.